How do you rate Rock Hill? The city government recently asked its citizens that question, among others, and is now formulating the best way to use the results.
The Rock Hill City Council and the city’s department heads cloistered on the Winthrop University campus Wednesday to review the results of the 2014 citizens survey, and plan how what the city’s residents want will be represented in Rock Hill’s long-term vision.
The survey was mailed to 1,200 selected residential addresses across the city in June 2014 – up to three times, to ensure a higher response rate. This was the fifth three-year study the city has conducted since 2002. Although only 23 percent of the targeted households returned the survey, the results, combined with information from focus groups, helped give city officials a chance to see how residents perceive different public services.
“Some things always rank high; the library, trash collection, the fire department,” said Michelle Kobayashi with the National Research Center, which performs similar studies for municipalities across the nation. “The planning department, not so much, so we need to set benchmarks for each one.”
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In many ways, the survey shows a high level of satisfaction with the direction of the city. Fifty-six percent of respondents rated their quality of life “good,” and most gave a thumbs up to the city’s housing options and recreational activities. But the level of citizen engagement gave some council members pause. The number of citizens who said they had opportunities to get public information from the city dropped more than 10 percent since 2008, to below 50 percent. Eighteen percent said the city does a “poor” job welcoming citizen involvement; another 35 percent said it was only “fair.”
Most disconcerting, the number who have watched a local public meeting has dropped from above 60 percent 11 years ago to around 25 percent, even as other avenues of public engagement – voting, volunteering, and club and church membership – have trended up. Attendance at meetings is even lower, at 15 percent, below the national average for the survey.
The only explanation Kobayashi could come up with, she said, is that “a few years ago you may have had more meetings.”
The makeup of Rock Hill’s community might make public engagement difficult.
“A significant portion of the workforce travels out of the city everyday,” said Councilman Jim Reno. “I’d say it’s difficult to participate if you have less time here.”
On the other hand, too many people at a council meeting “could be a red flag,” said Mayor Doug Echols. “They’re probably angry about something.”
“If you frame it in terms of people coming to council meetings, that’s not very exciting,” Echols said. “The question is whether there is another avenue for engagement, whether it’s in the PTA or at church.”
Some other indicators also point toward a need for attention. The public’s perception of the city’s “cleanliness” and “land use” also slipped from previous surveys. Pedestrians’ “ease of walking” through Rock Hill is below the national average. And 48 percent of respondents ranked the city’s economic development efforts as “fair,” while another 12 percent called them “poor.”
“It seems like they’re all trending downward,” said Councilman John Black. “And maybe that’s statistically insignificant, but that’s got to say something, that most of them are going down.”
Kobayashi cautioned those changes are dependent on who chooses to respond to the survey. If the city has seen many new residents move in over the last few years, they may rank some services differently because of different expectations and a lack of knowledge of what came before. Councilwoman Sandra Oborokumo thinks this may be the case with the lower rating for utilities.
“They may be accustomed to paying $50, and that they’ve moved to a different climate they’re reacting to things being different,” she said.
If the city has recently seen some “impressive years,” Kobayashi said, the figures may be returning to some kind of baseline. Overall, Rock Hill still ranks average or above compared to other cities that have participated in the National Research Center survey, and most of the shifts are in line with similar nationwide trends.
“If the next time you do the survey, they’re down again, then I would be concerned,” Kobayashi said.
One avenue to post civic engagement may be an increased social media presence for the cities and its agencies. Facebook and Twitter show an increased ability to reach newer and younger residents who may not get information about the city from more traditional channels, and the municipal government has mobile apps that allow citizens to report problems like broken streetlights.
Rock Hill does a particularly good job of factoring the survey results into their long-term strategic planning, so much so Kobayashi said she cites Rock Hill’s example in presentations to other city councils.
“That’s really a foreign concept to some people,” she said of the uses to which Rock Hill puts the collected data. “You don’t have to waste time fighting about what your citizens think is important.”